Two brothers, one consumed by greed, the other by envy. In a
time when the land is savaged by marauding armies, they risk their families and
their lives to pursue their obsessions. Kenji Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu"
(1953) tells their stories in one of the greatest of all films -- one which,
along with Kurosawa's "Rashomon," helped introduce Japanese cinema to
Western audiences. The heroes are rough-hewn and consumed by ambition, but the
film style is elegant and mysterious, and somehow we know before we are told
that this is a ghost story.
opening shot is one of Mizoguchi's famous "scroll shots," so named
for the way it pans across the landscape like a Japanese scroll painting. We
see a village, the roofs of the rude houses weighed down by tree branches to
keep them from blowing away in the wind. We meet Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), a
potter, and his brother Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), a farmer. Although gunshots on
the wind suggest an army is near, Genjuro is loading a cart with bowls, cups
and vases, packed in straw. His wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) begs him not to
risk a trip to the city at this time of conflict -- to stay home to protect her
and their son. But he insists, and Tobei, filled with goofy excitement, insists
on coming along, despite the protests of his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito).
returns with treasure: gold coins, which he insists his wife weigh in her hand.
He makes her a gift of a beautiful fabric, bought in the city, but doesn't
understand when she says that the cloth means less than his love for her. All
he can talk about is making more pots and more money. Blinded by the gold, he
returns to his work with a frenzy.
sees a great samurai on their trip and tries to enlist in his army, but is
turned away as a "dirty beggar" because he has no armor. Now the two
men plan their next assault on the city, although when an army sweeps through
on the night they have fired the kiln, they fear their work has been lost. Not
so; the pots survive, and this time they think it will be safer to journey by
boat across the lake to the city, instead of by land.
famous lake scene is the most beautiful in the film. Shot partly on a tank with
studio backdrops, it creates a world of fog and mist, out of which emerges a
lone boatman who warns them of pirates. Genjuro returns to leave his wife and
child on the shore, and continues with Tobei and Ohama. In the city, his work
sells quickly, and he is invited to the castle of a beautiful noblewoman named
Lady Wakasa, who admires his craftsmanship. She's played by Machiko Kyo, one of
the greatest stars of the period, who was also the woman in
wanders off from his wife and his brother. Time passes. He clumsily kills a
samurai and steals the head of a foe that the samurai had killed. Presenting
this trophy to the samurai lord, he is praised and given a horse, a house and
men to follow him. Filled with pride, he brings his men for the night to a
geisha house, only to find that his wife, raped by soldiers after he abandoned
her, has become a geisha.
in the city, Genjuro visits a fabric shop and imagines his wife's joy when he
brings her more beautiful dresses, but then Lady Wakasa appears, suggesting he
may need a guide to her castle. He is mesmerized by her strange beauty; made up
like a Noh heroine with smudges for eyebrows high on her forehead, her face
shadowed by veils and a wide straw hat, she is like no woman he has ever seen.
the castle, she drifts from behind screens and curtains and, regarding his
simple pots, asks him, "How is such beauty created?" She praises and
seduces him, and the critic Pauline Kael remembers she gasped with delight when
he cried, "I never dreamed such pleasures existed!" Perhaps Genjuro
should have taken warning when he heard the voice of the lady's dead father
echoing through the room, and when her lady-in-waiting advised him, "Don't
bury your talents in a small village! You must marry her!"
(1898-1956) was famous for the theory that one scene should equal one cut,
although sometimes he made exceptions. The great Yasujiro Ozu had the same
theory, with the difference that Ozu's camera never moved in his later films,
while Mizoguchi's style was constructed around flowing, poetic camera movement.
Consider a scene where Lady Wakasa visits Genjuro as he is bathing in an
outdoor pool, and as she enters the pool to join him, water splashes over the
side and the camera follows the splash into a pan across rippling water that
ends with the two of them having a picnic on the grass.
is a crucial sequence when Genjuro goes back into the city, and on his return
to the lakeside castle, is halted by a priest, who calls after him: "I see
death in your face! Have you encountered a ghost?" He warns Genjuro
against being "beguiled by a forbidden form of love."
at the castle Lady Wakasa begins to embrace Genjuro, but recoils, crying out,
"There is something on his skin!" Indeed, the priest has covered
Genjuro with symbols of exorcism, which seem to burn the noblewoman as if they
Wakasa is of course a ghost (we never doubted it), and there is a haunting
scene when Genjuro sees the castle as it really is, a burned ruin. There is a
second ghost in the movie who we do not suspect, and the revelation in that
case creates a touching emotional release. It comes toward the end, after both
men have returned chastened to their village, and are forgiven by their wives
for the male weakness of blinding ambition.
learn from an article by Gary Morris in the Bright Lights Film Journal that
Mizoguchi may have drawn on his own life in the story of "Ugetsu."
When the director was a boy of 7, Morris writes, his father lost the family
fortune in a reckless business venture. They moved to a poor district, and his
14-year-old sister Suzu "was put up for adoption and eventually sold to a
geisha house." So perhaps the sins of the father were visited upon
Mizoguchi's two heroes.
a career that started in 1923, Mizoguchi ended with a series of masterpieces,
including "Life of Oharu" (1952), "Sansho the Bailiff"
(1954) and "Street of Shame" (1955), which in its consideration of
geishas perhaps draws on the life of his sister. To enter his world, like
entering Ozu's, is to find a film language that seems to create the mood it
considers; the story and its style of telling are of one piece.
characters in "Ugetsu" are down to earth, and in the case of Tobei,
even comic, but the story feels ancient, and indeed draws on the ghost legends
of Japanese theater. Unlike ghost stories in the West, Mizoguchi's film does
not try to startle or shock; the discovery of the second ghost comes for us as
a moment of quiet revelation, and we understand the gentle, forgiving spirit
that inspired it.
are Lady Wakasa's seduction techniques graphic; she conquers Genjuro not by
being sexy or carnal, but by being distant and unfamiliar. Always completely cloaked,
often hidden by veils, she enchants him not by the reality of flesh but by its
tantalizing invisible nearness. I was reminded of Murnau's silent masterpiece
"Sunrise" (1928), also about a country man who abandons his wife and
child to follow an exotic woman across a lake to the sinful city.
period detail is accurate and rich. The city marketplace, the headquarters of
the samurai, Tobei's visit to a shop to buy armor and a spear, Genjuro's haste
when he asks another merchant to watch his prized pots (for he must hurry after
Lady Wakasa) -- all of these create a feudal world in which life is hard and
escape comes through the silly dreams of men. Women are more cautious, and
there is a blunt realism in the sequence where Miyagi, left behind, tries to
protect and feed their son as armies loot and rape the countryside. At the end
of "Ugetsu," aware we have seen a fable, we also feel curiously as if
we have witnessed true lives and fates.